This past weekend Mel Cowell (one of our designers) and I attended CanUX at the Museum of History in Gatineau. 

Ottawa's own Rob Woodbridge emceed the event from beginning to end with humour, charm, prizes, mild cursing, light abuse, hugs, and yes, a dance-off. Rob raises the bar for emcee's everywhere: if you are not willing to whip/nae nae on stage for an audience of 500+ UX nerds, then... come to Ottawa and take some lessons from Rob.

CanUX speakers ranged from conservative to outrageous, from academic to technical, from design to fine art. I can't capture the entire weekend in a single post, but here are a few highlights.

Peter Merholz kicked us off by digging straight into the topic of organization design. UX and product management are the work of teams, and building a team can often raise a lot of questions.

Who does what? Who leads? How do scattered teams create consistent, on-brand experiences? How do we keep the big, time-consuming iterations early in the process, when we are still able to rapidly sketch and prototype? How do we keep technical build iterations efficient and useful? These are questions that product teams often ask.

Peter has a hefty resume behind his expertise: co-founder of Adaptive Path, product design and product management for Jawbone, OpenTable, and Groupon. Oh yeah, and he coined the word "blog."

There's no reason design can't be the driving force.


Peter's vision includes:

  • centralized design teams where designers and product managers are empowered to lead and make decisions
  • design for the user type, not the feature
  • an organization model that allows, and thrives on, a partnership of creative leadership with operational leadership

Joining the line-up all the way from Australia, Leisa Rechelt gave a truly inspiring talk about the fundamentals of good user experience design.

Not content to give lip service to the idea of user-centered design, Leisa talked about the true effectiveness of user research, user observation, and user exposure.

And by research, Leisa doesn't mean bring a couple of users into the lab, and she really doesn't mean sit around the boardroom table imagining what a user might do. She means: talk to real users, observe them using your product, and make sure that everyone on a product team is exposed to real users, following Jared Spool's recommendations.

The flagship project Leisa presented at CanUX is the digital transformation of

Now, it's one thing to design a game or a boutique site, light on text, heavy on images. It's quite another to design an experience that guides citizens through the dry complexities of driving regulation, travel visas, voting, citizenship, and taxation.

The secret is research. And then more research.

The resulting experience is guided, helpful, and understandable. I almost want to fill out a visa application just for the pleasure of it.

And to top it off, the resulting wisdom of all that research is available online.

I left CanUX with a slight UX crush on Leisa, and began stalking her immediately. (Don't worry, only on her blog,

In Rules, Hunches & Coin-Flips, Boon Sheridan of Rosenfeld Media encourages designers and UX specialists to revisit their assumptions and examine their experience and knowledge. Ask yourself: How do I know what I know? Not a bad question for any specialist in a rapidly changing industry.

Boon told us:

  • Trust your own instinct, but never stop learning.
  • Be suspicious of "rules" and "best practices." 

Time makes fools of best practices and rules.

NASA's Steve Hillenius gave us a glimpse behind the scenes of planning astronauts' missions. Steve's youthful face and impressive job title immediately makes you think, "wunderkind." 

Ever struggled with finding the right productivity tools or digital calendar, you know, to remind you when to drive the kids to soccer or do laundry? Well, imagine life on a space station: an astronaut's day is planned down to 5 minute increments. And, while bad planning for us earthlings might make a child late for soccer practice, out there in space, bad planning can have very serious consequences indeed.

The solution Steve showed us was an elegant and visual drag-and-drop tool, deceptively simple to the eye. But underneath this apparent simplicity is a complex system of constraints, dependencies, and rules.

Steve also taught us about operational realism versus testing in the lab. How do you test a user experience for outer space? You can't just send a few volunteer users to the space station for a few hours and write down their feedback. 

The answer is NEEMO, NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, where astronauts live for up to 3 weeks in Aquarius, an underwater research station. 

CanUX ended with a flurry of Futura Bold, cursing, and wiener dogs. Aaron Draplin, the bearded and behatted man himself, took the stage. Earlier in the conference, a fellow UXer asked me what it was that made Aaron Draplin's work distinctive. Of course, there are the visual qualities: the Saul Bass influence, the thick lines, and of course, Draplin's wiener dog Gary is frequently featured.

But if I had to describe Aaron Draplin's work, I would say that it is the opposite of precious. And Draplin's stage presence has a brash, honest, transparent quality about it. He is genuinely passionate, not only about design, but the realities of making a living at it, and the hard work that it should entail. And work hard he does, producing hundreds of logo sketches and comps for every final logo.

The event drew to a close with a flurry of shopping at the merch table and unseasonably warm sun pouring in through the museum windows. We left with our heads full of new ideas and inspiration.

And the lingering vision of our emcee doing the whip/nae nae.